Five places saying "yes, in my backyard" to the nasty stuff that no one else wants.
- By Sylvie SteinSylvie Stein is an editorial researcher at Foreign Policy.
The Dump: Nuclear waste
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has ambitious plans for Russia’s nuclear energy sector, and they go beyond his bid to become a global supplier for countries that can’t enrich their own uranium. In 2001, then-President Putin signed a package of laws allowing Russia to import spent nuclear fuel, opening the door to a trade estimated at $20 billion over the last decade in reprocessing and storing irradiated waste. The country has imported spent fuel from research reactors in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Libya, Romania, Serbia, and Uzbekistan, as well as tens of thousands of tons of depleted uranium from power plants in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. Russia is legally required to ensure that the re-enriched fuel and reprocessed waste is returned or properly disposed of, but only a small percentage of the original material gets sent back. What happens to the rest? An estimated 700,000 tons of radioactive uranium tailings (including waste from Russia’s domestic reactors) are being kept in Siberian cold storage, some outdoors in rusting steel canisters at Mayak, Russia’s only reprocessing facility and site of a horrific nuclear accident in the 1950s. For environmentalists, Mayak is one of the world’s longest-running ecological disasters. For Putin, it’s also big business.
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The Dump: Offshore drilling
U.S. President Barack Obama may be rethinking offshore oil drilling in the wake of the BP blowout, but Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s main concern is that his country isn’t drilling enough. With Mexico’s proven oil reserves declining — daily production has decreased by roughly 1 million* barrels since 2004 — Pemex, the state oil monopoly, is anxiously drilling new exploratory and development wells, mostly off the country’s northeastern coast. That should make the Gulf of Mexico’s pelicans and sea turtles nervous, given the company’s environmental safety record — more than 1,000 Pemex workers have died in industrial accidents over the last two decades, and Pemex holds the previous record for history’s largest peacetime oil spill, the 1979 Ixtoc disaster.
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The Dump: Trash
For years, the Ghanaian government has sought to make treasure out of its enormous supply of trash, even touting the slogan, “Solid Waste: Big Problem! Big Opportunity!” The opportunity is waste-to-energy, a process for capturing gases from waste and converting them to fuel. Ghana hopes that garbage alone can generate 50 megawatts of electricity over the next 15 years. But though the country has some of the worst sanitation in sub-Saharan Africa, its landfills are so picked over that there’s not enough “good” waste to turn into electric power. So, in 2008, the government proposed a $250 million scheme to import and incinerate garbage from Western Europe and Canada. Although the plan is still in development, Ghana is already a dumping ground for Europe’s electronic waste, with containers full of broken cell phones, computer hard drives, and TVs arriving each month in the port of Tema, near Accra. European laws prohibit the export of this dangerous waste, but labeling the trash as a “charitable donation” offers a loophole. In the enormous Agbogbloshie dump, children smash keyboards and burn circuit boards to salvage scraps of iron and copper for sale, sending up black plumes of smoke over the acrid city.
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The Dump: Prisoners
Peaceful, prosperous, and friendly to pot and prostitutes, the Netherlands has so few criminals that it has been forced to close eight prisons and cut more than 1,000 jobs in the national corrections system. Neighboring Belgium faces the opposite problem: serious prison overcrowding, with around 10,400 prisoners, more than 2,000 over capacity. In a shining moment of European integration, the countries have found a fitting solution: The Belgian government is planning to rent 500 Dutch jail cells for $38 million a year and send prisoners to the largely uninhabited Tilburg jail in the southern Netherlands. The prisoners will still fall under the jurisdiction of Belgian courts but may find a bit more elbow room in their new accommodations.
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The Dump: Opium
Although morphine produced from opium is legally prescribed around the world as a pain reliever, most countries are hesitant to grow opium-producing poppies for fear that it will lead to an increase in organized crime, drug addiction, or even terrorism. That reluctance has provided an opportunity for the rugged island of Tasmania, which began producing opium in 1970 and currently accounts for about half the world’s legal crop. The only state in Australia where opium cultivation is legal, Tasmania rakes in more than $60 million per year from the trade. The island’s remote location off the southeastern coast of Australia has worked to its advantage, making it harder for smugglers to divert the crop to the heroin business. Aside from some stoned tourists and the occasional hallucinating wallaby — yes, really — Tasmania has seen few ill effects from its flourishing cash crop.
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*Correction: Daily production dropped by roughly 1 million barrels, not 1 billion, as originally stated.